The Holocaust period was characterized by a constant attempt to break Jewish spirit and humanity. Consequently, all aspects of physical and spiritual life of the Jews were torn asunder.
Within this environment, with official policy aimed at denying the Jews – as individuals and as a community – their freedom, humanity and, ultimately, their very existence, Jews in the ghetto were often prohibited from assembling, which made it difficult and dangerous to pray in a minyan (quorum). Even tefillat yachid (individual prayer) was not always possible either, due to conditions such as forced labor.
Nevertheless, there were those in the ghettos and camps who managed to pray individually and communally, in particular during the Yamim Nora'im (High Holy Days) and Jewish festivals. For them, it was a declaration that the Nazis would destroy neither their faith nor their traditions. Tefillah (prayer) was, in many ways, an act of defiance against the Nazis. Under those dire circumstances, tefillah served as an anchor, an island of spirituality, or in the words of Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl from his book Man's Search for Meaning, something with kedushah (holiness) to cling to. People who were able to carry out some semblance of tefillah in those chaotic times – in the traditional form or in their own improvised way – with valiant effort and at great risk of danger, drew strength from the profound meaning they found in it. Perhaps in learning about their mesirut nefesh (self-sacrifice) we, too, can draw strength and derive deeper meanings in our own tefillot.
Discuss the attempts of Jews to cling to tefillah as a means of maintaining tradition and as an expression of their identity and faith during the Holocaust, and talk about the particular meaning that tefillah took on in that environment. Use the dialogue on tefillah in the Holocaust as a point of departure for a discussion on what tefillah means to the students.
- Introduction – the difficulties and challenges of tefillah during the Holocaust
- Group activity – tefillah in a ruptured world
- Summary – discussion on the meaning of tefillah
During WWII, Nazi Germany endeavored to cast the entire Jewish population – men, women and children alike –out of the human race. A systematic process, beginning with racial discrimination and legal terror, later made way for a well-organized and widespread killing spree, the outcome of which was six million Jewish victims.
Throughout the Holocaust, Jews experienced one rupture after another, rending the fabric of their individual and communal lives. As official anti-Jewish policy moved forward, Jews found themselves in a never-ending struggle for their very existence, both physical and emotional. Their predicament and the dehumanization they experienced became increasingly severe with the progression of the stages of anti-Jewish policy. They were forced out of the realms of life and society, suffered inconceivably humiliating conditions, and their life experience was characterized by chaos and devastation.
Read the following passage that Holocaust survivor Chaim Kaplan wrote in his diary in January 1941, two months after the establishment of the Warsaw ghetto, and before the murder operations had even begun. His writing reflects the enormity of the emotional rupturing taking place among Jews as individuals and as a community as a result of Nazi policy.
January 9, 1941
We live, yet it is not real life, only a silhouette of life. And the imprint of a shadow, where a man is reflected only by his shape. It would appear to be the same man, yet without his same stature, without his same facial portrait and without his same body profile. Everything has become warped, distorted. Everything has taken on a strange appearance such that the observer would recognize it with a smirk on his lips.
- What does Kaplan mean when he defines life as "a shadow"? Why has he chosen to use this image?
- How was the emotional state of the Jews affected by the progressive measures taken against them?
- In your opinion, how did this affect the tefillah of the Jews during that period?
Show the students the work of art by Holocaust victim Felix Nussbaum.
With the German occupation of Belgium in 1940, Jewish artist Felix Nussbaum was arrested and taken to the Saint Cyprien detention camp in southern France. He escaped and returned to Brussels, where he was forced to go into hiding. There, with the aid of Belgian friends, he continued to create artworks in which he gave expression to the persecution and terror. Incarceration in Saint Cyprien was a watershed for the artist; it was then that Nussbaum comprehended the true extent of mortal peril as a Jew under Nazi rule. He depicted this in his important work The Camp Synagogue at Saint Cyprien (1941), a unique work that symbolizes his realization that he belonged to the Jewish people, and was perceived by others as such. It was his first painting on a Jewish theme in many years – a drawing of the lone Jew, pondering whether he belongs to the community, still hesitant to join the tefillah.
In 1944, Nussbaum was arrested in his hideout on the outskirts of Brussels together with his wife and several other Jews. He was deported to the Auschwitz extermination camp where he was murdered.
- What is the subject of the painting?
- What questions come to mind when you study the painting?
- Do the ideas depicted in the painting contrast with the ideas expressed by Kaplan, or do they complement them?
- Why do you think Nussbaum chose to paint tefillah in the camp?
- Who does the group represent?
- What is unusual about the way the figures are dressed? The talitot (prayer shawls) are not positioned correctly – what does this symbolize?
- Who does the lone man represent? What do you think are the questions that the artist was grappling with?
You may want to point out the contrasting motifs in the work to the students: the upside-down talitot, the contrast between the figures and the background, and the fact that the artist has chosen to reflect a world in which the known and familiar order has come undone. The figures seem to be engaged in tefillah while wrapped completely in their talitot – we cannot see their bodies nor their faces; it appears as if there is no body under the talitot. They seem to be floating, rendering them detached and unreal. The figure on the right is separate from the group yet is similar to the others; he is also wrapped in a talit, but unlike the other figures, he seems to be uncertain whether he belongs to the community of those who pray.
The lone man may be Nussbaum himself, who like many young men of his time was ambivalent about his Jewish identity. Arrested for being Jewish, Nussbaum made his way back toward his Jewish heritage with uncertainty. A gray gloomy sky fills the background; a black cloud blocks the sun during Shacharit (morning prayer), while ravens hover overhead. Scattered in the foreground are a shoe, an empty tin can, a bone, and some barbed wire, all symbols of the harsh conditions at the camp. The painting was based on a drawing Nussbaum made while at Saint Cyprien, which he completed in Brussels shortly after his escape from the camp.
Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Piaseczno Rebbe, was one of the most illustrious Hassidic rabbis in Poland during the interwar period. He was a renowned educator, famous for his works on his innovative educational methods. The most important of these was Chovat Hatalamidim (The Students' Obligation).
The Piaseczno Rebbe was confined in the Warsaw ghetto during the Holocaust, where he continued to lead his followers and deliver his drashot (sermons) each Shabbat, focusing on the circumstances of the times. He continued to deliver his drashot until the liquidation of the ghetto. Copies of these were found after the war, and published as the book Esh Kodesh (Holy Fire). The Piaseczno Rebbe relentlessly provided inspiration to the Jews imprisoned in the ghetto despite worsening ghetto conditions. As far as we know, he was murdered at the Budzyń concentration camp on November 3, 1943.
In his Shabbat Shuva drasha (between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) in September 1941, Rabbi Shapira said:
I thought that in troubled times such as these, on Rosh Hashanah the sound and the power of our prayers would pour forth from the heart like a roaring waterfall. However, we see that both Rosh Hashanah and Shabbat Shuva are not with the yir'ah [awe] and hitlahavut [passion and devotion] seen in times past.
What could be the reasons for this?
...[and others have told me they also felt that way] What reasons could this have? (a) King David says "When I called you, you answered me; you inspired me with courage" [Psalms 138:3]. When a Jew prays and his prayers are answered, he is strengthened and is more fervent in his subsequent prayers. This is not the case when we pray; not only are our prayers not answered, but our troubles greatly increase [and so] a person becomes discouraged and not stirred to pray with fervor; (b) as we mentioned (in Parashat Shoftim 1941), that for everything, a person must have at least a touch of faith and joy, which is not the case when a person is wholly crushed and downtrodden; [then] there is no one who could be joyous.
- What problems with tefillah is the Rebbe of Piaseczno referring to? How do his explanations help us understand what we have seen in the painting?
- What is the common thread in the ideas expressed by the Rebbe of Piaseczno, in Nussbaum's work and in Kaplan's words?
You may want to point out to the students that although the Rebbe expected the tefillot to be particularly fervent given the dire circumstances in the ghetto, he does not seem to be criticizing the community; rather he is trying to understand where the problem lies.
- Chaim Aharon Kaplan Megilat Yesurim (Heb.) (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem and Am Oved, 1967), p. 425.
- Rabbi Kalonymus Shapira, Holy Fire (Heb.) (Jerusalem, 1960), pp. 125-128.
Group Activity – Tefillah in a Ruptured WorldGroup Activity – Tefillah in a Ruptured World
Divide the students into groups, asking each group to listen to the testimony and study the source material, and to discuss the questions below.
- How is the rupture in the writer's world conveyed?
- How would you characterize their tefillah? (tefillat yachid (personal)/tefillah betzibur (collective), traditional tefillah)
- What meaning did tefillah take on because of the rupture and adversity?
- Select a sentence that left an impression on you from each source, explaining your choice.
As an alternative to group work, you may wish to select a few of the texts and analyze them with the entire class, or to allow individual work, wherein each student is given several sources to analyze.
It is interesting to observe the profound meaning tefillah took on during the Holocaust, and the attempts made to cling to it as much as possible. In some cases, we observe people's need to express tefillah in their own words given the unfathomable circumstances. In other cases, clinging to the fixed format of the ancient words of tefillah even when routine tefillah services were not possible accorded spirit and strength, bridging to some degree the sense of desolation with the sense of belonging to a community, something beyond is above time and space. The feeling was particularly meaningful when tefillah betzibur was made possible, as in Bracha Karwasser's description of a tefillah for the welfare of Eretz Israel that took place in the Warsaw ghetto (Group 3). It is astonishing that the Jews of Warsaw, who were suffering their own terrible calamities, found the emotional strength to rise above their own troubles in order to identify in thought and in prayer with their brethren in the Land of Israel, who were facing "only" a threat of physical danger. In Reuven Feldschuh's diary description (Group 4), what stands out in particular is how tefillah infused him with hope. The power of codified communal tefillah was also well understood by the educator and orphanage director Janusz Korczak (Group 5). Although he himself did not adopt tefillah into his own lifestyle, he recognized the need to organize tefillot for Rosh Hashanah for the children.
Group 1Group 1
Holocaust survivor Zvi Barlev was born in Krakow, Poland. A few months after he reached bar mitzvah, Krakow was conquered by Germany and Zvi and his family were imprisoned in the ghetto. In his memoirs, Zvi describes an event that occurred just prior to the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto, when the family did not know what fate awaited them.
My mother had already packed everything – knapsacks were ready and everyone had two more packages to carry as well. We would be leaving carrying everything we owned, and we'd be dressed in our finest clothing.
"Come," says father, "let us say our last tefillot in the ghetto; for maariv [evening prayer] we will already be somewhere else." He wraps himself in his talit, covers his head and murmurs quietly, "How precious is Your faithful care, O God! Mankind shelters in the shadow of Your wings... With You is the fountain of life; by Your light do we see light"... Father's head is still in the talit – and he is weeping. I try to keep from crying, but I cannot hold myself back. I turn my head away so that my parents won't see. I pray with all my heart, "Happy are we! How goodly is our portion, and how pleasant is our lot, and how beautiful our heritage" – and I cannot continue... I understand the meaning of the words and they sound absurd. Is it not hypocritical to say the words of tefillah that have no truth, am I not violating the commandment of loose-tonguedness? I wanted to put my siddur [prayer book] down, but it was clear to me that I would hurt my father, and he was suffering enough as it was. After all, he understands the words in the siddur too – and he is praying...
Zvi Barlev (Bleicher), Would God It Were Night (Heb.) (Tel Aviv: Sifriat Poalim Publishing Group, 1981), pp. 85-86.
What is striking in Zvi's description is the tension between the words of the tefillah that are so difficult for him to say under the circumstances, and the obligation he feels toward his father.
Holocaust survivor David Kahane was a rabbi in a Lvov synagogue before WWII broke out. He was imprisoned in the Lvov ghetto during the Holocaust. With the help of Archbishop Andrei Sheptytskyi, he found haven in a monastery. In his diary, David describes the following:
Meanwhile, September was drawing to a close. The bloody [Jewish] year 5703 [1942-1943] was about to end.
On Saturday night, September 1943, Jews in the free world were probably getting ready to recite Selichot [penitential prayers recited in the period leading up to Rosh Hashanah].
The first day of the New Year fell on Tuesday, September 30, and Yom Kippur was due on October 9. Since I kept an accurate account of holy days and festivals, I was able to commune in my thoughts with the community of Israel. No holy place, no public prayer, no prayer book, and no Jews. I was alone, set apart and cast out. I spent the Days of Awe [the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur] in the very heart of the Uniate Catholic church. “From the depths I call on thee, O Lord!” With these words I poured out my heart before the Eternal G-d.
David Kahane, Lvov Ghetto Diary (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990), p. 143
David Kahane was born in 1903 in Grzymalow, Poland (Galicia, today Ukraine). He was ordained as a rabbi in 1929 and served in Lvov. After the war, he was involved in the rebuilding of Jewish communities in Poland in his capacity as Chairman of the Vaad Hakehilot (Community Committee). He also served as Chairman of the Council of Rabbis and was Chief Rabbi of the Polish Army. He immigrated to Israel and served as a military chaplain.
For Rabbi Kahane, tefillah was not only an internal dialogue with God but way beyond that. It helped mitigate the deep-seated sense of loneliness he felt and linked him to a sense of belonging to the klal (community).
Betty Meir arrived with her mother from the Westerbork transit camp in Holland to Bergen-Belsen. Trained as a nurse, she worked in the camp hospital in order to be able to help her mother.
One of my assignments was to look each morning to see who had died during the night [...] In the morning, a driver with a cart and donkey would arrive, and the two of us would lift the bodies onto the cart. I would become particularly shaken up if someone I knew was among them, that was terrible [...]
One night, I broke down completely. I was in the nurses' office and I cried terribly. Although I am not religiously observant, I said, "G-d, what have I had so far from life? I haven't yet lived, I haven't yet had anything. I went to school, I studied nursing for a few years, what have I had and today I am going to die? I haven't even done anything." I pleaded that He keep me alive.
From where will my help come?
Betty did not define her conversation with God as prayer. This would be a good opportunity to discuss with the students the question of what tefillah actually is.
Group 2Group 2
Holocaust survivor Reuven Feldschuh was an active Zionist rabbi and educator. While imprisoned in the Warsaw ghetto he kept a diary, in Hebrew, in which he described the following:
The kloyz [synagogue] is nearly full. The chazzan's [cantor's] modulated tefillah is melodious. An outsider observer of the ba'al tefillah [lit. leader of the prayers, the cantor] and the mitpalelim (worshippers) would not discern that the world is about to fall into an abyss.
They all don their talit and tefillin [phylacteries]. If you close your eyes for a moment and do not look at these people, at their gaunt faces... and listen only to the hum of their prayers, you would be sure you happened upon the synagogue at a time of peace and tranquility...
Young people are also in the camp of mitpalelim, and their numbers are not few. They, too, are partners to the formation of a mood in which the corporeal is forgotten and the neshama [soul] is surrendered to exalted, supreme worship, in which the dwindling of the body takes no part, and the suffering of the moment is considered naught...
I was suddenly filled with a warmth the likes of which I had not felt throughout the war. Someone, or something, had carried me from here, borne me, and planted me amidst the Jews from the Middle Ages, who were fighting and dying for their faith... Out in the world -- murder, theft, robbery, fraud. Out on the street – cold. In the heart – grief and pain. But above all these hovers another force, supreme and eternal. The force of the generations that have been and that will be.
Reuven Feldschuh, Yad Vashem Archives 033/959, p. 644
Felschuh's words articulate the disparity between reality and mood, and the gap in time between the present and the distant past, from which he draws strength and meaning. This association with the harsh periods of Jewish history may just as well have weakened him, dragging him down; yet instead – it is this link between the past and the present that gives him strength.
Holocaust survivor Imre Kertesz was born in Hungary. At the age of 15, he was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and later to Buchenwald. In his memoirs, Imre describes an event that took place in the camp when a young boy was hanged before the camp prisoners.
My attention was drawn rather to my left, from where all at once came a sound, a muttering, some sort of song. In the row, I saw a slightly tremulous head on a scraggly, forward-stretched neck... the rabbi. Soon I also picked out his words, particularly after others in the row had slowly taken them up from him... it somehow it passed across to nearby groups, the other blocks, spreading and gaining ground as it were, because there, too, I observed a growing number of lips in motion and shoulders, necks, and heads cautiously, almost imperceptibly, yet distinctly rocking back and forth...'Yitgaddal ve-yitkaddash' being sounded over and over again, like some murmur issuing from the ground below, and even I knew that this was the so-called Kaddish, the Jews' prayer of mourning for the dead... Indeed, for the very first time, I, too, was now seized, I don't know why, by a certain sense of loss, even a touch of envy; for the first time, I now somewhat regretted that I was unable to pray, if only a few sentences, in the language of the Jews.
Imre Kertesz, Fatelessness (Vintage International, New York, 2004), pp. 161-162.
Group 3Group 3
Holocaust survivor Ruth Cyprus jumped off a train to Treblinka with her daughter and made it back to Warsaw. With the help of some Polish friends, she was able to hide her daughter with a Polish family. She herself lived under a false identity. She describes her experiences on Yom Kippur under that false identity:
And the next day was... Yom Hadin [lit., the Day of Judgment, here meaning Yom Kippur]... Now I was in a church... Swapping a synagogue with a church changed nothing, just like switching my name. After all, it was only external; as children, we were taught that the Creator is everywhere...On Yom Kippur 1943 I prayed with fervor, and my fast was authentic and complete.
Ruth Cyprus, In the Face of Destruction (Heb.) (Tel Aviv: Keren Publishing, 1995), pp. 135-136
When word came to the Warsaw ghetto in 1942 that the Germans were nearing Eretz Israel, Avraham Levin, a Zionist activist, educator and writer who was later murdered during an aktion, wrote the following entry in his diary:
Although we ourselves are entrenched in mortal danger, our hearts are trembling at this moment for the fate of Eretz Israel, as the war approaches its borders. The Jewish settlement in Eretz Israel – half a million people – and an enterprise of pioneering efforts, years in the making – is now in great peril. If I were a believer, "I would pray: God – at least save Eretz Israel!"
Avraham Levin, From the Notebook of the Teacher from Yehudiya (Heb.) (Beit Lohamei Hagetaot, 1969) reprinted in Research Anthology, 33 (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 2005), p. 32.
Holocaust survivor Sara Tessler was 16 when she arrived at Auschwitz with her sister. She survived five camps, and after the war immigrated to Israel. In her memoirs, she describes an event that took place at the camp:
One day I found a siddur [prayer book] in a pile. A small, leather-bound siddur with a boy's name in gold-embossed letters, with a dedication on the occasion of his bar mitzvah. I turned the fine pages of the siddur, and the Hebrew letters glistened before my eyes. Familiar letters, known words, forgotten prayers.
Childhood memories, completely obliterated from my mind in the first days at Birkenau, began to come back to me that night, the night I remembered that we must pray, that there are specific words for the tefillot, but despite all efforts, I could not remember the words. I could not remember how to say the kriyat shema and modeh ani [basic prayers]. But everything was written in that little siddur. This siddur I would not give up. I stuck it into my dress, holding it in place by one of the rags I tied around my waist.
I safely made it past the inspection at the gate. Not only on that day, but for several days I went out of the camp and back in with the siddur secured to my body undiscovered at inspections. Then I found a narrow crack in the floor of the barrack and shoved it in there. We prayed from that siddur every day, all the girls in my work group, all of whom had once known the tefillah in the past. We prayed together, huddled, reading the words from start to finish, reading the titles and the words of the kaddish [prayer for the dead] too, reading every time we had a free moment, whether morning or evening, even though the siddur contained only tefillat shacharit [Morning service].
The rest of the women in the barrack watched us, coming closer to hear the resonance of the words; words that were familiar to them, too, although they themselves never actually engaged in prayer in their lives.
Sara Tessler, The Years of Sara's Life (Heb.) (Kfar Haroeh: Shem Olam, 2010), pp. 88-89
Group 4Group 4
Korets (Poland, now Ukraine) was captured by the Germans in the summer of 1941. In the aktionen that took place in the summer of 1941 and spring of 1942, more than 2,600 Jews were murdered, leaving only about 1,000 Jews in the ghetto.
On Rosh Hashanah of 1942, the Jews prayed at the Shoemakers' Synagogue. It was the only synagogue remaining standing [...] I will never forget those two days of Rosh Hashanah. The tefillot were accompanied by the heart-rending weeping of men and women. All the Jews of the ghetto were present. Even the secular Jews prayed with great kavana [fervor]. Everyone felt that the only help that could be expected would be help from God. The most difficult moments were in the reciting of the kaddish. All the mitpalelim [worshippers] recited the kaddish in unison; there was no one present who did not have someone to say the kaddish for.
From The Book of Korets, Korets Landsmanshaft in Israel, p. 71.
Reciting the kaddish here is an expression of continuity and of clinging to tradition, but it is also an articulation of the great rupture taking place.
Holocaust survivor Rabbi Naftali Stern served as the chief chazzan in the city of Satmar for many years. With the German occupation, he was deported to Auschwitz with his entire family. After the selektion he was sent to forced labor in the camp at Wolfsberg. As Rosh Hashanah approached, he realized that the texts of the tefillot were not readily available. Somehow, in exchange for valuable bread rations, he managed to obtain a torn wrapping from a sack of cement. He quickly jotted down the words of the tefillot on them from memory, just one week before the holy day.
I wrote this from memory in an effort to make as few mistakes as possible, because I remember the prayers as a ba'al tefillah who prayed for many years… For forty-three years the handwritten machzor [High Holyday prayer book] was in the machzor I prayed from after the war. On Rosh Hashanah, I would take it out and place it before me. I know that it has already begun to disintegrate, because I wrote it in pencil on the paper from a sack of brown cement I bought in exchange for bread rations.”
Naftali Stern kept the pages of Mussaf [additional prayer recited on Shabbat and holidays] of Rosh Hashanah from the camp in Wolfsberg in his home, keeping it among the family's machzorim [holiday prayer books] . Every Rosh Hashanah he would spread out those pages and pray from them. When he decided to hand over them over to Yad Vashem for perpetuity, he burst into tears, kissing them and saying, "I made the utmost effort to safeguard these, I didn't know then in the camps that what was written would become a national treasure... with God-s help I will read from it every Rosh Hashanah. I will come here during the holidays to see it." Naftali Stern passed away on 24 Av 5749 (25 August 1989).
At the end of Yom Kippur, 1944, Naphtali Stern wrote the following in the camp at Wolfsberg:
"Sovereign of the world!
You wrote in Your holy Torah [about Yom Kippur], "and you shall torment your souls" [meaning to fast completely during Yom Kippur] and in another place You wrote, "and you shall safeguard your souls."
Lord my Creator and my sanctity!
Which of the two should I observe – if I continue my fast it will be my end, and then I will not be able observe the second commandment – what should I do?
I want to fast and You don’t let me, You don’t let me, and in spite of that I will fast, this time I will fight You!
You don’t let me fast and I will fast anyway, I believe that I will beat You but give me the strength to beat You."
The above words actually came out of my mouth and suddenly a heavy sigh burst out of my throat from the depths of my soul. Neither before nor since have I ever felt such a feeling.
I immediately felt the answer of the Holy One, blessed be He. I felt enormous relief. My hunger ended. New strength came into me, and I continued with both together – work for the Germans and prayer to the Holy One, blessed be He.
The afternoon hours passed easily for me. I also managed to pray Minchah [the afternoon prayer] and Ne’ila [the closing service on Yom Kippur] (however much I still knew by heart) and in that way, seven o’clock in the evening arrived; by this time, Yom Kippur had already ended.
We finished our work and began to march seven kilometers to the camp.
I didn’t see three stars in the sky [the way by which a Jew marks the end of a day], but rather three million. I added another hour of fasting as a sacrifice of thanks to the Holy One because of the great kindness He had done me.
Only an hour later, did I take out the dry bread and the herring tail and eat.
Group 5Group 5
Janusz Korczak was the pen name of Henryk Goldszmit, born on 22 July 1878 to an assimilated Jewish family in Warsaw, Poland. Korczak studied medicine, was a writer, and was the director of the Jewish orphanage in the city, which he continued to manage in the Warsaw ghetto.
Holocaust survivor Michael Zylberberg describes a special encounter with Korczak in his memoirs.
"A few weeks before Rosh Hashana  Janusz Korczak visited us at home with a new idea. He wanted me to help him organize services at the orphanage.
…He saw my surprised expression and, not waiting for questions, said, "At this particular time it is important to hold services at the orphanage. The prayers may give people a spiritual uplift in these tragic times.
…Within a few days everything was arranged. I found a good cantor…the children themselves got the hall ready…they laid down carpets and decorated the place with flowers smuggled from outside the ghetto. An ark and embroidered cover were obtained, and two scrolls.
…He [Korczak] would spend all his time in the hall among the children, standing in a corner will back from the front rows with a Polish prayer book in his hand, incongruously garbed in an old grey overcoat, army boots and a silk skullcap. He was deep in prayer.
The cantor, who had suffered a great deal and was a man of learning, put all his heart into his performance. His supplications sprang from personal experience, and never had an audience been carried away as this one. No one stirred. Even the children were glued to their seats…"
Michael Zylberberg, A Warsaw Diary (London: Vallentine, Mitchell & Co. Ltd, 1969) pp 44-45
“The Telz ghetto was in the very worst part of the city. Most of the people lived in dilapidated houses, without windows, in cowsheds and stables, in dampness, cold and dirt. Most of the inhabitants of the ghetto were women [because the men had already been deported]. Rosh Hashanah came. The women gathered in the old synagogue, which was located in this part of the city, for the holiday service. There were hardly any machzorim or siddurim, nor was there anyone to serve as the chazzan. They all waited… Suddenly a sweet voice was heard: “Bless the Lord who is blessed,” and the congregation responded: “Blessed be the Lord who is blessed forever and ever” [the opening words of public prayer]. In front of the ark stood a young girl who prayed by heart, passage after passage, […] with the appropriate melody […] like a real cantor, and the congregation was swept after her. The girl also blew the shofar [ram's horn, blown on Rosh Hashanah to inspire prayers of forgiveness] She put her hands to her mouth like a shofar and emitted shofar-like sounds. “Shevarim [disconnected sounds]…” “Teru’ah [tremulous sounds]”… like a perfect shofar-blower who was blowing a real shofar. She also read the portion of the week like a true ba'al tefillah."
Chassia Gering-Goldberg, The Book of Telz: A Memorial to a Holy Community (Heb.) (Telz Survivors’ Organization in Israel).
The issues in this testimony address continuity of life through the continued existence of prayer. The tefillah described here is a sign of continuity, but that tefillah simultaneously demonstrates the rupture, as indicated by a minyan made up only of women, the blowing of the shofar without a shofar, etc. The description of life in the ghetto -- the dilapidated houses, the fact that most of the men had already been deported from the ghetto to a fate unknown, the cold, the dirt – in stark contrast with the moving prayer that "swept the congregation" – points out to us what great value that tefillah had for them.
Holocaust survivor Avraham Shdeour grew up in Czechoslovakia and was deported to Auschwitz at the age of 14. In his testimony, he describes the following event:
My father pulled me into a group of men who were praying, and I suddenly realized that I had forgotten how to pray, that the words of the Shema Yisrael had escaped me. I, who had known all the tefillot by heart since I was a young boy – mincha, ma'ariv [evening prayer], shacharit and also the tefillot of Shabbat – suddenly could not recall a word. I felt terrible. I said to my father, "I want to daven [pray], but I cannot, I can't remember the tefillot." He tried to recite them with me, and suggested that I repeat after him, but I felt I couldn't. I repeated, "Father, I want to daven," and he answered, "Daven however you can, a tefillah from the heart, a tefillah that you feel you can say"...
From the testimony of Avraham Shdeour, YVA 0.3/4503
Avraham's inability to remember the words of the prayers that he had been so well versed in before arrival at the camp indicates the severity of the trauma he experienced upon entering the camp and becoming a prisoner. You may want to discuss with the students the way his father addressed the issue.
Group 6Group 6
Holocaust survivor Avraham Lidovsky from Baranowichi fled the ghetto and joined a partisan unit. He described his experiences in his diary:
We were twenty-four Jews together, nineteen young men and five young women, with seventeen rifles and grenades among us. Our ashen hut was hidden in the shadows of a dense wood of pine trees, deep in a thick shady forest. [...] A dull yellow light glows through the curtain hung across the small window, from the small gloomy flame burning inside the hut. The small iron heater is burning, hot as fire, to the sounds of the Jewish melodies and folk songs. We are seated on ledges, everyone in their own position; one has his legs folded under him, another leans on his hand... Quiet, heartfelt melodies pour forth from our throats. Lazar conducts the chorus.
"Comrades, it is Erev Shabbat, let us now sing Avinu Malkeinu [a prayer said on the High Holidays, here used in irony as Shabbat is normally a time of joy]."
All immediately begin singing Avinu Malkeinu. The Jewish melodies break forth until the early hours, echoing among the great branches of the trees; it almost seemed as if the people wished for the trees to join us in song. From time to time, the sentry would come in to remark, "Lower your voices, comrades." We sing with such passion that for a short while we forget that we are in the forest; it seems to us that we are sitting in our homes around the table on Friday evening, singing zmirot, as in days gone by.
Avraham Lidovsky, In the Forests: Notes of a Jewish Partisan (Heb.) (Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1946), pp. 134-135.
The following prayer was composed at Bergen-Belsen. Pesach [Passover] 1944 was approaching, and the rabbis in the camp were grappling with the difficult issue of issur chametz [the prohibition of eating leavened foods on Passover]. On one hand, the eating of chametz is prohibited on Pesach, but how could they possibly issue an injunction against eating chametz given the poor physical condition the Jews were in? Due to the dire circumstances, Rabbi Salomon Levinson composed the following tefillah with a heavy heart.
Before eating chametz, one should say with meaning:
"Father in heaven, it is revealed before You that our will is to do Your will, and to celebrate Passover by eating matzah [unleavened bread] and by abstaining from eating chametz. Alas, our hearts are filled with anguish, for our servitude prevents us [from fulfilling these commandments], and we find ourselves in mortal danger. We are ready and willing to fulfill Your commandment to “live by them” (Leviticus 18:5) – and not to die by them – and also to obey the warning, “Take heed to yourself and guard yourselves well.” Therefore, we beseech You to grant us life, sustain us and speedily redeem us, that we may observe Your commandments, do Your Will and serve You wholeheartedly. Amen."
Yona Emanuel, Dignity to Survive (Southfield, MI: Targum Press, 1998), p. 178.
Moshe Ha-Elion and his family were deported to Auschwitz from Thessaloniki, Greece. In his memoirs, he describes his Yom Kippur in the camp's infirmary.
The eve of the Day of Atonement came […]Against the day of fasting I had saved , every day in the week that preceded it, a little part of my daily bread portion […]
…suddenly the door of our hall was shut and a sentry was poster […] A lockdown was imposed on the whole camp! […] We knew! This was it! The moment we had feared would come had arrived! […]
The reading of the numbers began and continued for a long time. The person whose number was read, left his bed, took his effects…and went to one corner of the hall […]
Words can hardly describe the atmosphere permeating the hall, a mixture of tension, expectation, shock and fear. The people remained silent as if they were holding their breath […]
The SS men left, taking with them those whose fate had been determined […] Long minutes after the whole affair had ended I remained standing by my bed bewildered, stunned, finding it difficult to realize that I had escaped from the worst fate of all […]
Meanwhile it darkened; the Eve of the Day of Atonement had come […] I returned to my bed determined now with greater vigor to persist in my fast […]
Towards the end of the day of fasting, at the time of Ne'ilah (the closing service) I felt an inner impulse, impossible to stop, to raise my voice and to sing the liturgical hymn, which was always sung with a great emotion and an inestimable devoutness by the congregation. It was the hymn "El Nora Alila" (Oh God, Who Acts Awesomely.) A part of its stanza with words inspiring hope seemed fit to be said at that time more than ever in the past […]
...Favour them and take pity,
And every oppressor and warrior
Give them the punishment
In the time of the Ne'ilah
Michael the Minister of Israel
Eliyahu and Gabriel,
Please herald the redemption,
In the time of the Ne'ilah
Moshe Ha-Elion, The Straits of Hell: The Chronicle of a Salonikan Jew in the Nazi Extermination camps Auschwitz, Mauthausen, Melk, Ebensee (Cincinnati: Bowman & Cody Academic Publishing, Inc. & Bibliopolis, 2005) pp 29-31
Holocaust survivor David Halivni grew up in Sighet. He was known as an ilui [Talmud prodigy], and had already received smicha [rabbinical ordination] by the time he was deported to Auschwitz at the age of 17. He wrote the following after the Holocaust about the centrality of tefillah:
“You don’t have a society without people who pray,
You don’t have a time when there is nobody praying,
You don’t have a place that cannot be turned into a place for prayer,
And you don’t have a person who does not embrace a secret prayer in the depths of his heart to the hidden forces that will rescue him from distress,
To ameliorate his situation and improve his fate.
Man is a praying being.”
Discuss the following questions with the students:
- How can Livni's words be explained in the context of the texts you have read?
- What deeper meaning have you found in your own tefillah after having learned about the role tefillah played in the lives of Jews during the Holocaust period?
Ask the students to choose a segment of tefillah from the siddur that takes on particular meaning for them as a result of what they learned in this lesson.